Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The RBANM behind the RBANM schools and colleges

I had the honour of meeting Mr TV Annaswamy some days ago. Anyone who is interested in the history of Bangalore would probably be familiar with that name - he is the author of Bengaluru to Bangalore: Urban History of Bangalore from the pre-historic period to the end of the 18th century, a comprehensive compendium of information on Bangalore f
rom numerous, varied sources. I went to meet him not because of his role as an author but because Mr Annaswamy is the grand-nephew of Rao Bahadur Arcot Narrainsawmy Mudaliar, i.e., RBANM.

I had long wanted to know more about this man RBANM who had lent his name to so many institutions and grounds in Ulsoor. So I started from his death. I knew from Wikipedia and here that he was buried somewhere on Veerapillai Street so one morning, a friend and I set off to look for his grave.

Addresses have changed. So have people. Most people we knew had no idea who we were talking about. We were variously directed to the RBANMS grounds and an old hamam (which I have to check out sometime). Even the people at the post office had no idea where the grave might be. Finally, it was a sardarji in a tyre shop who knew exactly what we were looking for and directed us to the spot (unfortunately, I forgot to ask him his name, nor do I remember the name of the shop).

The samadhi was inside a neat little compound in a corner of a huge cricket field, opposite what appeared to be a pay-and-use bathroom and what I presume was a warehouse. It was locked and neither the puzzled person at the warehouse nor the drunk watchman at the gate to the warehouse-bathroom area (and the samadhi) knew when it would be open. From the outside, I could tell that a shrine has been built around the grave, but since I have not yet gone back to check inside, I cannot tell you what it looks like inside the shrine.

I was disappointed with the samadhi, but not entirely surprised. Not one of the people we talked to in the area knew about it or seemed to care. It was lost inside and belittled by its inappropriate surroundings. Right outside its gates, all I could see were huge construction debris and paraphernalia like huge tin sheets. But at least there was a board and the samadhi itself seemed very neatly maintained.

But the samadhi had piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know more about RBANM. Enter Mr Annaswamy. Well, actually, I entered his office and immediately noticed all the yummy antique furniture. "Everything here is antique...including me," quipped Mr Annaswamy. He was a charming, helpful and soft-spoken person, and only too happy to talk to me about his ancestor. Being passionate about history in general, he has taken it upon himself to compile as much of his family's history that he can. "My family thinks I am a little mad," he said, smiling at his obsession.

Mr Annaswamy had retired as the Joint Director of Town Planning in
the GoK and had written a book that was highly regarded, but here he
was generously giving of his time to a paltry freelance writer. He talked to me about his collage, helped me with photographs and entertained all my questions. I couldn't help but admire his humility and grace. I learnt about how RBANM could hobnob with Bowring and Sankey but never forgot his nationalist spirit, how he never forgot the help that the Maharaja gave him, how he argued for entry to temples for everyone fo all castes, how he had believed that wealth was something that was meant to be shared.

At the end of the interview, I came back impressed by one man, inspired by the other.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A slice of Paradise

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a hike as much. We were at Bhagamandala, in Coorg, where the river Cauvery is joined by the Kanika to create a sacred confluence. We had just been to the beautiful Bhagandeshwara temple and were now off to Talacauvery to see the source of south India's most sacred river. But rather than drive up, we decided to walk up. I had done this 6km walk before, but that was several years ago, when I had come with a group of friends from the mountaineering club SPARK. I had very fond memories of that short trek. Would things have changed now? 

Incredibly, it is as if the years in between never were. As before, we didn't meet a soul along the way. The moss- and fern-covered old stone steps were just as I had remembered and it was still a delight to walk along the tree-lined path that wound its way through orange plantations. And there near the top of the hill was top was the small stone Nandi, looking into the distance where the Talacauvery temple was. From that vantage point, we could see the Talacauvery gate and temple in the distance, partly shrouded in mist. We could also hear cars whizzing past us on the road below. I couldn't help but feel they were missing out on a small slice of paradise. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Heritage Interpretation

At Hirebenakal
Over the last year, I have been working on a clutch of heritage interpretation projects for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Some of these were at some megalithic sites in north Karnataka, some at sites that have Ashokan inscriptions, and a recent set that I just finished was in Bhatkal and Mirjan in North Kanara. Here are pictures of some of the signs. Concept, research and writing by yours truly. Illustration and design by two gifted young women, Sneha Prasad and Nikita Jain.

At Hirebenakal

At the Ashokan edict site at Gavimath. That's a portrait of Ashoka there!
At Bhatkal 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why your grandma loves you

A good deal of my interest in science (in topics other than ecology, I mean) dates back to the time I was working on my doctoral dissertation. When staring at graph after graph became too much, or when I had just managed to hammer out another paragraph full of et al-s, howevers and therefores and really needed a break, my chosen method of chilling out was to browse science journals! I read up all the latest research on pesticide residues, acrylamide in foods, chimp behaviour, cooking oils, vitamin D, and sundry other topics in science. 
That was when I first read about, and was immediately intrigued by, the Grandmother Hypothesis. Since those early days, there has been a lot more written on that subject, including some pretty nice refinements that are stunning simple but exciting in how much they explain. The hypothesis - which includes explanations for why women undergo menopause and why grandmas dote on their grandchildren - had been on my mind a lot lately. When I found myself explaining it to a friend the other day, I decided it was high time I got it out of my system. This week's S and T section in Spectrum carries an article on the hypothesis:

What do women, whales and elephants have in common? Answer: The irreversible cessation of fertility that occurs well in advance of the end of the average adult life span.Or in plain English: menopause. In all the animal kingdom, only some kinds of whales, Asian elephants and women go through menopause. Naturally, scientists have long pondered over why this might be. And funnily enough, your grandmother might have a lot to do with this mystery.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The original Lalbagh

It all started almost two years ago, when the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru asked INTACH to organise some walks in Bangalore to coincide with an exhibition they were having on artists of the 1700s and 1800s. One of the walks we did then was at Lalbagh Botanical Garden.
I've always loved going to Lalbagh (except perhaps on some weekends when you can barely see the trees for the people). Researching the history of the garden for the Parichay was fun - re-reading Tipu's letters where he asks for seeds from elsewhere, reliving Cleghorn's excitement over the Sultan's garden that was to become a botanical garden...
But we had chosen Lalbagh for the NGMA walk because in the eighteenth century, a lot of Englishmen who came to Bangalore - soldiers, draughtsmen, artists - seem to have been fascinated by the place. In the late 1700s, Europe was in the grip of the Picturesque movement, so when artistically-inclined chaps came and saw here a readymade picturesque garden, complete with mandatory ruin, it was but natural that they tried to capture its picturesqueness in their sketches. Robert Home, James Hunter, Robert Colebrooke and Claude Martin all sketched views of Lalbagh.
Spurred on by MBK, I tried to take a closer look at the paintings and at maps that we had for the same period...and was a little startled. Why, it looked like today's Lalbagh was not where the Lalbagh of the 1790s was. A couple of emails to colleagues and friends who are considerably wiser than I, some meetings, a few discussions, and several months later, we had put together a note which was later published in Current Science. Take a look. And the next time you go to Lalbagh, think about how different it once looked.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sankey and a letter

I have always wanted to write about Richard Hieram Sankey - he of Sankey Tank fame - someone who seemed to me to be an epitome of industry. In a few short years, he built so many of our most beautiful buildings, including the lovely St. Andrews Church and the stately Mayo Hall. And of course, he was responsible for Cubbon Park. Who in Bangalore has not communed with Nature when wandering the winding paths that lead through its bamboo thickets, or listening to the trill of a magpie robin on one of its many trees. What impressed me about him was that he was not just a regular PWD engineer whose job it was to build edifices. That he did, but he was also clearly so passionate about a great many
other things. Look at his paintings and it is immediately obvious that he was a keen observer of Nature. In fact, he was one of the first to raise his voice against indiscriminate tree clearing in Coorg. While involved in work on building roads and bridges there, the ever-observant Sankey realised that tree felling led to flooding. He also collected fossils and shells. Sankey's first wife, Sophie Mary, was the daughter of the noted malachologist William Benson. Was Sankey interested in shells even before he met Sophie, I wonder...

Nothing quite compares to the high that appreciation brings. A day after my article on Sankey appeared in Deccan Herald, the main paper carried a letter from a reader who liked the article. I confess I couldn't stop smiling all day!